President Biden’s announcement on Monday that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had been killed is great news. A murderous terrorist with the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands has been removed from the face of the earth. Biden deserves credit for authorizing the operation this past weekend that took out Zawahiri, who, Biden said, had been living in “downtown Kabul.”
Here is a question: What was Zawahiri doing in “downtown Kabul”?
Following the United States’ catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, Biden assured us that al-Qaeda was “gone” from that country. “Look, let’s put this thing in perspective,” Biden said last August. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. … And we did.” That same month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan as “remnants” posing no serious danger to the U.S. homeland.
Nearly a year later, even as we celebrate the strike against Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man and successor, questions abound: Zawahiri showed up not in some remote cave in the Hindu Kush mountains but in the very heart of Afghanistan’s Taliban-controlled capital. What was he doing in Kabul? Who invited him? With whom was he meeting? And what does his presence signal about al-Qaeda’s return to the country from which the terrorist group planned the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?
During his address to the nation on Monday night, Biden said that Zawahiri had been tracked to the Afghan capital “earlier this year” after he had “moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family.” U.S. officials told Politico that he was known to be in the Afghan capital in May. Think about what that means. Within months of Biden’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, Zawahiri’s family and the al-Qaeda leader himself had relocated to Kabul.
On Monday, Biden said that Zawahiri had “made videos, including in recent weeks, calling for his followers to attack the United States and our allies.” If he was known to be in Kabul in May, and made videos urging his followers to kill Americans in “recent weeks,” that means Zawahiri was planning and inciting external operations against the United States from Afghanistan, possibly under the protection of the Taliban. That might not have been possible if Biden had listened to his military commanders and left a residual U.S. force in Afghanistan, preventing the Taliban’s return to power.
A critical question now is what operations was Zawahiri planning? Unfortunately, we might never know. Unlike the 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, the operation that killed Zawahiri was not carried out by a team of U.S. Special Operations forces. That’s because, thanks to Biden, the United States no longer has boots on the ground. Zawahiri had to be taken out by drone strike, which means we had no ability to exploit the site where Zawahiri was killed by collecting pocket litter, computers, hard drives, cellphones, documents or other material intelligence. The bin Laden raid produced a trove of information on al-Qaeda’s operations, ongoing plots, the identities and locations of al-Qaeda personnel and other vital actionable intelligence. The drone strike that vaporized Zawahiri destroyed all the actionable intelligence he possessed along with him.
Some lessons of this incident are clear: Al-Qaeda is back in Afghanistan. Yes, it is good that we killed Zawahiri — and Biden deserves credit for the strike. But he also deserves blame for creating the conditions that allowed the world’s most-wanted terrorist to move to downtown Kabul and set up operations in a city that had been liberated from al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies with the blood of courageous American service members. If the president had listened to his military advisers last year, Zawahiri might never have been in Kabul this year. Killing Zawahiri is Biden’s greatest foreign policy triumph. The fact that al-Qaeda’s leader was in Kabul is Biden’s greatest foreign policy disgrace.